Outer Beltway, North-South Corridor, Tri-County Parkway, Bi-County Parkway, Corridor of Statewide Significance.
It’s been called many things in the 30 years since Virginia’s leaders first recognized the need for a bypass linking Interstate 95 in eastern Prince William to U.S. 50 near Dulles Airport in Sterling. Today, it’s inching closer to reality.
Once projected to be complete in 2035, the Bi-County Parkway – as it is now called in Prince William County – has the support of Secretary of Transportation Sean Connaughton, as well as many regional leaders and interest groups.
Decades ago, Congress also recognized the need to preserve the Manassas National Battlefield by relocating Va. 234 Business out of park, passing two pieces of legislation addressing the issue.
The proposed Bi-County Parkway would do both.
‘A 19th century road system’
“The need for this is growing every day and it is more than obvious we need to go forward. Between Prince William and Loudoun counties we are near reaching a point that there will be almost 800,000 people,” Connaughton, former chairman of the Prince William County Board of Supervisors, said in a recent interview.
“When we talked about this 30 years ago, people were concerned about growth and what this road would do,” he said. “We’ve now gotten the growth, but we do not have the transportation facilities. That is what this road would do.”
While there are critics, both the Prince William and Loudoun boards of county supervisors support the plan and have included it in their comprehensive plans.
“Prince William and Loudoun counties are two very quickly growing communities and yet if you’ve ever tried to drive between them, you know it’s very difficult,” said Prince William County Supervisors Chairman Corey Stewart, R-at-large during the Prince William Chamber of Commerce’s State of Prince William event last week. “We’ve got a 19th century road
system between those two counties and it’s got to change.”
Deciding a route
When the Virginia Department of Transportation began studying the corridor in the 1980s, it came up with several routes, some traveling through Fairfax County.
In May 2011, the Commonwealth Transportation Board defined the 45-mile corridor in question as “the area generally east and west of the Route 234/Prince William Parkway and the CTB-approved location of the Tri-County Parkway between Route 95 and 50, and connections to the Dulles Greenway and Route 7.”
Last June, the CTB approved $5 million to start engineering and design work for a 10.4-mile section of the project.
The Bi-County Parkway would begin near the intersection of Interstate 66 and Va. 234 Bypass/Prince William Parkway. It would make a zigzag around Manassas National Battlefield Park, run along U.S. 29 and then follow Pageland Lane along the northern side and western edge of the park. The parkway then would extend north to U.S. 50 in Loudoun County near Dulles.
A second part of the corridor project, now being called the Loudoun County/Tri-County Parkway, would link State Route 7 in eastern Loudoun County to western Fairfax County and Interstate 66. Eventually, the corridor would wind its way to Interstate 95 in eastern Prince William.
Proposed routes and timeframes for the rest of the project are still on the table. For now, Connaughton and county leaders are pushing to see the 10-mile stretch from the 234 Bypass to U.S. 50 complete sooner rather than later.
Highway through history
Over the years there have been plans, studies and public hearings. However, the Bi-County Parkway project now has momentum and Connaughton wants to it continue.
“The situation is going to get worse before it gets better and that’s why we need to move forward now,” he said.
As one of the next steps, many major governmental and historic entities need to sign off on a “programmatic” agreement, an agreement in principle, to build the road. Among them are VDOT, the Federal Highway Administration, the state Department of Historic Resources and the National Park Service, which is a key player in what happens next.
Connaughton and Ed Clark, superintendent of the Manassas National Battlefield Park, both said they felt an agreement is near and should be ironed out this year.
“If we can reach a point where the park service believes that the conditions are such and the mitigations are such that it is to the net benefit of the park then we will sign on,” Clark said.
“We are working to ensure that we and other preservation-minded people have the ability to be very directly involved with the design of the (Bi-County) Parkway along the edge of the battlefield to make sure that things like sight and noise are addressed so that you minimized their impact on the battlefield,” Clark said
While the state had always planned to close U.S. 29 and Va. 234 inside the park when the parkway was completed, Connaughton said it is now considering closing portions of those roads as the parkway is built in stages.
Clark said that couldn’t come soon enough. About 52,000 vehicles, of those 13 percent are trucks, travel through the intersection of U.S. 29 and Va. 234 within the park every day.
“A lot of people say, ‘Why would you want a road beside you?’ To get the road out of the middle of it,” Clark said. “We want to get as much of the traffic that we can out of the battlefield.”
Connaughton calls the traffic inside the battlefield “a dishonor to the people who fought the two battles.”
There’s also the tourism lost to congestion.
“We believe this will create a true green space in Prince William where today it is essentially a commuter route,” Connaughton said.
The constant rumble of traffic makes experiencing the battlefield difficult for visitors trying to imagine the park as it was in 1861, Clark said.
Fighting traffic and always having that modern intrusion really distracts from that,” he said.
VDOT estimates the parkway could cost about $210 million to build.
Connaughton said the state does not yet know when it will get under way or exactly how it will be funded.
The General Assembly’s passage of a broad transportation plan to bring money for road and rail to Northern Virginia will likely help, he said. He said some state funds could be spent on engineering for the parkway and right-of-way acquisitions.
But he is hopeful that a private-public partnership, not unlike the one between the Potomac Nationals and the state for a new stadium and commuter parking in Woodbridge, could help fund the parkway.
“It would be our hope to get this project under way in the next five years,” he said.
Support and Opposition
That’s good news to Bob Chase, president of the Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance.
“The need for this and other north-south corridors has been well established for decades,” Chase said. “The need is obvious to people who live in Prince William and Loudoun counties, who need to get to the airport, who need better connectivity to jobs in those two jurisdictions.
“The list of why this is important and necessary is quite extensive,” Chase said.
Yet there are environmental groups and others that disagree. They worry the road will encourage more development in the western Prince William region known as the “Rural Crescent” and encourage more commuting, Instead, transportation improvements should be focused on I-66, U.S. 50 and U.S. 1 in Prince William, they say. They also worry about the impact on the battlefield.
“This ‘dumb growth’ road is designed to bust the rural area. The rural area steers growth so new public facilities that cost residents less in property taxes,” said Charlie Grymes, Prince William Conservation Alliance Board chairman.
He said the parkway would perpetuate high taxes on homeowners and limit the funds needed to meet the Comprehensive Plan goal for new parks, managing stormwater to protect the Chesapeake Bay, and creating the live-work-play community described in the county’s Strategic Plan.
“Our strategic vision is to develop into a place where businesses choose to locate,” Grymes said.
The conservancy wants the county to invest in bringing in new jobs.
“Roads that export workers to other jurisdictions undercut our vision,” Grymes said.
A 39-page letter signed by several opposition groups was sent last summer to comment on the proposed programmatic agreement.
“Our organizations recognize the irreplaceable value of Manassas National Battlefield Park. We share the important goal of removing commuter traffic from the two highways that currently cross the battlefield. However, we are committed to ensuring that the chosen solution does not increase the overall impacts to the battlefield from traffic or simply shift the negative impacts from one area of the battlefield to another – especially when far less damaging alternatives have not been adequately considered,” the letter stated in part.
It was signed by Southern Environmental Law Center, the Piedmont Environmental Council, the Coalition for Smarter Growth, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and the National Parks Conservation Association.
Connaughton dismisses criticism that the parkway will encourage growth since it has already happened. He said he believes the impact on the battlefield will be positive.
“We think this is just a great opportunity for everyone. It will be good for historic preservation, good for the environment and good for transportation. It’s a win-win-win,” Connaughton said.
Photo by Jeff Mankie for Prince William Today